NHS played its role at UN Climate Change Conference

NHS England South’s Regional Lead for Sustainability and Health gives her reflections on the UN Convention on Climate Change in Paris:

It was a privilege to be in Paris for the UN conference on climate change.

The city buzzing with a sense of urgency which came partly from the tragic events of November 13, combined with the world’s attention on the climate talks as well as the French regional elections – not to mention the festive season!

It was very heartening to witness a gathering of health professionals and healthcare organisations from all over the world, united in their desire to encourage the negotiators to reach a strong and ambitious agreement.

The dangers to health from the burning of fossil fuels were clearly spelt out from a range of distinguished global speakers.

There are eight million premature deaths a year worldwide from air pollution. Asthma cases and allergic conditions are rising in Europe partly due to air pollution but also due to longer exposure to allergens with rising temperatures. The Asian tiger mosquito has now reached southern France bringing cases of chikungunya and dengue fever.

We know that floods and heatwaves can be major killers. The current floods in Cumbria clearly demonstrate the devastating effects of extreme weather on communities, economies and mental health. Also health services need to be resilient and well designed to ensure they can offer the necessary support and care to people in crisis.

We heard about some fantastic initiatives around the world such as the Gunderson Health System in Wisconsin where they have made an 84% reduction in their carbon emissions and saved millions of dollars as well. They also have reduced food waste by 80% and pharmaceutical waste by 20 times over.

All the hospitals in Paris are working jointly with the rail and transport system as well as the universities to create an integrated heating and cooling system which will be much lower carbon as well as much cheaper and more efficient. Another hospital in France has been completely redesigned to be totally flood resilient with all the key services above ground level.

In Taiwan there is a hospital serving only locally sourced plant based food which has greatly lowered costs, reduced environmental impact while also improving health outcomes. The patients apparently like it too.

There is a great new initiative by the UN around sustainable medical procurement which harnesses the collective buying power of health care to ensure supply chains are as lean as possible, do not create needless emissions and treat workers fairly.

Health Care without Harm launched their Global Green and Healthy Hospitals initiative with a ten point plan for all hospitals to follow – over 100 hospitals worldwide have already signed up.

I was delighted to learn that our own NHS/PHE Sustainable Development Unit won a double gold award from Health Care without Harm for the work we have done on a unified strategy across the system and exceeding our emission reduction target.  I was also honoured to be formally presenting to the negotiators a letter from the cross system group  which comprises NHS England, PHE, LGA, NICE, CQC, HEE, RCN and almost every health related body in the UK. The letter outlines the following ambitions:

  • reducing our carbon emissions across the health and care system by at least 34% by 2020.
  • embedding sustainability into decision making processes at all levels.
  • supporting local leadership in attaining sustainable, resilient, healthy people and places.
  • having regularly-updated extreme weather plans in place to deal with events such as heat waves, flooding and cold.

So the NHS will be working hard to incorporate these actions into all our work programmes so we can support the transition to a healthy world with a stable climate.

I will conclude with the words of Dr Maria Neira from the World Health Organisation who said: “The voice of healthcare must be strong and united to help create a healthier future for us all”.

Dr Caroline Jessel

Dr Caroline Jessel is the Regional Lead for Sustainability and Health for NHS England, South. She has been a GP for 30 years in Kent and has always had a strong interest in the relationship between the environment and health. She also works for the Kent and Medway area team as Clinical Strategy Lead responsible for facilitating all NHS organisations in the county to develop safe, sustainable and effective services. She is a member of the Kent Surrey and Sussex Clinical Senate Council and supports the Strategic Clinical Networks in the region. Caroline has led the development of the Sustainable Surgery Award Scheme, piloted in Kent and she is co-chair of the Kent Nature Partnership.